Learning the craft, part one

Pondering the writer’s never-ending education.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

This is part one of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

“I don’t think writers go to college,” my father informed me as I prepared to leave home for college. His unsparing honesty was one of the reasons I hadn’t revealed my ambitions, of course, but my dreams were obvious.

And while Dad was trying to be helpful, he was wrong. Not totally, in that his knowledge reflected what he knew of writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain and those of his generation—probably Hemingway and Faulkner. He didn’t know about Fitzgerald attending a prestigious Catholic prep school and then Princeton or about Dos Passos at Choate and then Harvard. Dad was a man of action. Though he’d graduated from a famous prep school himself, earning today’s equivalent of a fine college liberal arts education, he’d been thrown out of Cornell for landing an airplane on a campus lawn.

Afterward, he’d educated himself. He believed writing was about gaining experience in the world and then putting butt to chair. That’s how he’d written and self-published his own book, Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics.

There’s some truth in my father’s vision of the writer, but it’s ignorant about the degree to which writers must be highly educated, through some process, by other writers. Hemingway, again, is the case in point, though he famously turned on all those who’d helped him.

“I think you can be big in this business,” my father told me as I, newly graduated, headed off for my first newspaper job. “But learn the craft.”

Today the writers are in colleges, and that’s where craft lessons usually start. I’m not building up here to say that an MFA is necessary, not at all. But education in craft by fellow writers is. For most, that tutelage continues long past one’s undergraduate years; the guild of writers schools its apprentices by means of chummy conferences, by stray remarks about their work, and by sharp blows to the snout—stark rejections.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

Creative writing, in whatever genre, is an endless education, which ultimately does become self-directed, through reading books and from practice. But there’s nothing sadder than a man who sits down to write a big book, the book of his life, thinking it’s just a matter of butt to chair. I had been such a boy and almost was that man. And while I like to think I’d have gotten a draft done without my MFA program, I might have lost heart without its craft lessons and its affirmation. Because at Goucher College I gained an instant supportive community—students and mentors who live and breathe literature—and also began my long-overdue apprenticeship in the craft of book writing.

I learned so much afterward, in writing draft after draft of my book—it’s true that the only way to learn to write a book is to write one—that I risk falling into the common trap of undervaluing my MFA as part of my process.

There are many paths, but the consistent key is learning, at first with help—with lots of help. I know a writer who published a fine memoir, with a big New York trade house, after taking post-college on-line classes (Stanford’s are great) and after attending writers’ conferences. (Then she got an MFA, desiring to write fiction and probably wanting the degree to teach.) After a while, reading deeply in your chosen genre is the main thing, and reading and raiding everything else, as you write. Plus all the other things you’ve always heard you should do and finally find yourself doing: looking up words, counting syllables, reading your work aloud.

So many times I thought of my father as the years went by: I’m learning the craft, Dad.

Next: Another lesson on the path to publication: learning to love the process.

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18 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, MFA, MY LIFE, teaching, education

18 responses to “Learning the craft, part one

  1. A MFA isn’t enough to master the craft, I dont remember who said this, but a being a writer is having homework everyday of your life.
    We’re constantly learning the craft.

  2. As one who has chosen to write without an MFA and to be educated bit by bit by other writers in their lessons both implicit and explicit, I’ve often wondered what I’m missing. Now I think it was a sense of community with other writers, which I am only now getting to have in part as a blogger. Thanks for being a vital part of my community with your posts, and I will look forward to reading your memoir when it comes out.

  3. Can’t wait for the next two in the series.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I am learning so much from all of you in this community of writers. Great post.

  5. Great post. Love your Dad’s spirit (the plane.)

    Community is huge, and essential, to writing well. I belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (1,400 members worldwide) and our online private forums are a fantastic source of help, advice and support. I just received a 70K word manuscript to blurb for a fellow member and have coached others through the process of finding and agent, writing a proposal and research.

    When I hit a big wall with my own (published 2011) memoir, it was a fellow writer — who has an MFA and who writes fiction (but is a fellow journalist) who gave me the confidence to revise 10 of 12 chapters: You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine. It said a lot and it got my butt back into the chair.

    I’ve never formally studied writing, but have attended ASJA and Neiman conferences and read constantly, (and in my genre when writing a book.)

    • Thanks reminding me of American Society of Journalists and Authors, a great group. I belong to Authors Guild, which helped with my contract negotiations.

  6. “But learn the craft.” Your father was spot on. Learn it any way you can.

  7. Yvette

    TRUE words to the third power! Write everyday if only for 15 minutes…writing craft is an artisan trade–like a silversmith pr electrician. We apprentice and work hard to a level of mastery. I like the definition from Dictionary.com “artisan-
    a person skilled in an applied art; a craftsperson.” We are crafts people fine tuning our artistic prowess as writers.

  8. What I know of craft, Richard, I have learned through your eyes. Thanks, and bring it on.

  9. Learning the craft is necessary formally by getting a degree or informally by other means. But too much focus on the formal degree can sometimes make the themes chosen and the form of expression a bit formulaic. In that sense your dad might have had a point.

  10. annhite

    I did not get my MFA in the traditional sense, but I did study one on one with authors who had accomplished the career I wanted. I took writing classes and attended workshops. Then, I was invited to review novels for a site who with one great editor. I was there for a year when I met the owner of a medium publisher up in New York. He took me under his wing and it was this experience that took my education to the next level. I so enjoyed this post and agree with it. We never stop learning. I will publish my second novel in September and I have applied to study under an author, who is several steps ahead of me in this writing business. Thanks.

    • What a neat story, Ann. How inspiring. Thank you for sharing it. It sounds to me like half the story, the rest being your role in being positioned for all this “luck” by your attitude, your work, your presence.